They won, in the end, through total, passionate commitment. Osvaldo Ardiles, midfielder for Argentina, had played his heart out for almost 40 minutes. Now, over to the left of the Dutch goal, he was brought down heavily by a defender. As he crunched onto the grass, he had the right to surrender, to shake himself, get to his feet and hope for a foul to be called. Instead, almost prone, he stabbed at the ball, and got enough of it to reach Leopoldo Luque cutting down the middle. Luque chipped it on to Mario Kempes. And the master striker, the goleador of Argentina, hammered it to the left of Keeper Jan Jongbloed and into the Dutch goal. In the World Cup final of 1978, Argentina had taken the lead in the final game. The Argentinians would go on to win 3-1 in overtime. But just now they had scored first and River Plate Stadium exploded with banners of sky-blue and white, the colors of the flag of Argentina.
The wild roar reverberated crazily and lasted for minutes. The passion of the players in blue and white was an echo of the crowd. It seemed impossible for that passion to be contained, even by the hardened veterans of the Dutch team. Johan Neeskens had said before the final that the crowd could have a huge effect on the game. Neeskens knows his crowds, having played in the '74 World Cup and in Spain.
As the Argentinian team ran onto the field before the start of the game, millions of fragments of torn paper, like a driving blizzard, blotted out the stands, and there was a prolonged salutation, something between a howl and a roar. It was awesome, but the Dutch, who were playing in their second straight World Cup final, did not quail in the face of it.
And they were representing more than just Holland. Among the vast acres of blue and white in the stands, a solitary sign read EUROPA. This final was European soccer vs. South American soccer, a calculating, scientific style against an improvised, informal one. Never had a European team won the Cup in South America, only once had a Latin American team prevailed in Europe. At River Plate on Sunday, the Dutch fans were pitifully few. A careful search with binoculars picked out one brave band of 14 Dutchmen in the stands. "Every one of them will be needed," a Dutch journalist said seriously.
July 2, 1978
The two finalists each had a couple of early failures in the three-week-long tournament, Holland losing to Scotland 3-2 and Argentina being beaten by Italy 1-0. But it soon became clear that they were the most aggressive teams in the competition. The marvelous running and shooting of Argentina's Kempes, for example, and the way the Dutch had changed, after the early games, from a dour, unexciting side to one almost as adventurous and creative as the team that Johan Cruyff led in 1974, alone justified the presence of both teams at River Plate. "The two bravest sides have come through," said Argentine Coach Cesar Menotti.
The early action had been slow, but last Wednesday, on the final day of the second round, the Cup matches suddenly pulsed with life.
Rosario Airport, 7:30 p.m.: a cacophony of samba drums and blaring horns, a blaze of Brazilian flags. No way to reach the ticket counter, which is jammed by a hundred fans struggling to watch the small black-and-white TV set flickering behind it. Fifteen minutes into the game being played more than 600 miles away at Mendoza, it is Argentina 0, Peru 0. The Brazilians who are crowding the airport have just come from watching their own team thrash Poland 3-1. Now, unless Argentina can beat the Peruvians by four goals, Brazil is in the final. Five more minutes of Argentina's time wastes away. The samba drums throb in anticipated triumph. And then Kempes crashes the ball home: 1-0 now and 21 minutes out of the 90 spent. Both Luque and Oscar Ortiz hit the Peruvian goalposts. Then Flight 556 to Buenos Aires is called, and as the Brazilians file reluctantly to the gate, there comes another roar from the ticket counter. Fullback Alberto Tarantini has soared up to head one in from a corner. It is 2-0 with three minutes to the halftime break. The Argentinians are even with the clock.
The tormented Brazilians board their flight. Even before takeoff the captain has the radio commentary from Mendoza piped over the intercom. It is no act of kindness though. Minutes into the second half, Kempes makes it 3-0, and a fourth goal, the crusher, comes four minutes later from Luque. It is the end of Brazil unless the Peruvians can come back. Renè Houseman and Luque put in two more goals. Argentina is in the final. On the ground at the Buenos Aires airport, the Brazilian fans slip away, silent. And in Buenos Aires, six million people flood the streets in delirium.
That 6-0 win, in the opinion of many, looked too good to be true. The Peruvians, who had played well enough in earlier games, lasted 20 minutes and then lay down and died. "I do not think they will ever hear their national anthem at the World Cup with pride again," said the Brazilian coach, Claudio Coutinho, bitterly. "The Peruvians should have been guests of honor at the postgame festivities," thundered the Jornal do Brasil. To make matters worse, the Peruvian goalie, Ramón Quiroga, had been born in Argentina. To explain his guiltlessness, he published an open letter the next day in a Buenos Aires newspaper. It was not his fault, he said; the whole team played their worst game of the tournament. "We just rolled over," he admitted.
Almost the only Brazilian to keep his dignity was Pelè. In his syndicated newspaper column, he wrote, "Come, come, gentlemen. We should not permit ourselves as Brazilians to sink so low as to put up these smoke screens. We are lucky to be in contention for third or fourth place."
Holland had qualified some hours before the destruction of Peru. Its second-round play had been fascinating, beginning with a 5-1 drubbing of Austria. Then, in a match between the 1974 finalists, there came a 2-2 tie with West Germany, which virtually put the defending champions out of the Cup.
This meant that Holland had only to tie Italy to make the final. At River Plate Stadium on Wednesday it seemed at first as if the ball-playing skills of the Italians—at times the most attractive team to watch of all the finalists—were going to deny Holland that. Paolo Rossi and Roberto Bettega were splitting the Dutch defense with ease. After 20 minutes, with Bettega coming through at him, Erny Brandts tried to slide the ball back to Goalkeeper Pieter Schrijvers. Instead Brandts collided with Schrijvers and the ball rolled into the net. Holland was a goal down, Schrijvers was off on a stretcher and the oldest player in the World Cup, 37-year-old Jan Jongbloed, who played against West Germany in 1974, replaced Schrijvers in the goal. It looked like the finish for Holland.
But it was not, because of a tactical decision by Ernest Happel, an Austrian who is Holland's coach. In the first half he had kept the great Neeskens back on defense. In the second half, gambling everything on attack, he sent Neeskens forward. Now the Dutch, a little aimless and disorganized previously, came on like a storm on the dikes. Brandts canceled out his first-half error by slamming home a long-range shot to make the score 1-1. Then Arend Haan, the 29-year-old who had scored on a magnificent drive from 30 yards against the Germans, produced a similarly remarkable goal to sink the Italians 2-1.
As an hors d'oeuvre to the championship game, Brazil played Italy on Saturday for third place and won 2-1 in a graceless game notable only because it was almost certainly the last appearance of the storied Roberto Rivelino in the colors of his country. At the age of 32, he was in his third World Cup, his 120th game for Brazil. It was also the end of Coutinho's association with the Brazilian team. His concept of "Europeanizing" Brazilian soccer had been a disaster.
Argentina had not Europeanized, however. Coach Menotti—thin-featured, elegant, an incessant smoker—had decided not to use the fine Argentinian players who performed for European clubs. Only Kempes, who plays for Valencia, in Spain, was brought home. For this Menotti endured the kind of lashing that only South American sports writers can hand out. And on Sunday came his test.
"The first 20 minutes"—that was the password among soccer pundits before the game. Swept on by the crowd, Argentina would throw everything into the attack from the outset and hope for the momentum that an early goal would bring. There was just one thing wrong with this theory. The attack lasted for almost all of the game's 120 minutes.
The only low note came at the start. Just after the national anthems, Argentina's captain, Daniel Passarella, ran off to consult Menotti, leaving the referee gaping. Then the whole Dutch team walked off. It was nine minutes after kick-off time before the teams exchanged ceremonial pennants. Reinier van der Kerkhof, a Dutch forward, was wearing a clip-on plastic cast on his forearm. Passarella seemed to be suggesting that the cast could be used as an offensive weapon. The cast was taken off, to be replaced by a soft bandage. Score one psyching point for Argentina.
But the Argentinian blitz did not materialize as early as expected. The first 20 minutes were fought mainly out in midfield. Argentina had Daniel Bertoni, Luque and Ortiz upfield, joined in raids by Kempes, but Rudy Krol was sweeping well for Holland. Bertoni, in a fine position to score, drove the ball straight at Jongbloed. At the other end a Rob Rensenbrink header was just wide; however, few other clear chances were created for either team.
A pattern was emerging. The Dutch were cool and professional, but without the intense physical commitment of the Argentinians. And when they did attack, there were signs of a breakdown in mid-field as passes started to go astray. The Argentinians were flinging themselves at every ball, and in the closing minutes of the first half their attacks grew more intense. Jongbloed had to punch out a header from Passarella, and then, in the 37th minute, came Kempes' goal, which Ardiles and Luque had helped to create.
In the early stages of the second half it was Argentina's turn to weather the storm. Neeskens moved right up into the attack. Haan sent in one of his blazing shots from outside the penalty area. Ubaldo Fillol, the Argentinian goalie, could only parry it. But there was no orange-shirted player there to hammer in the rebound. Argentina's thin blue line held. The Dutch began to look tired. The crowd had the scent of victory in its nostrils. The singing soared—"Vamos, Argentina."
But just when it looked all over for the Dutch, Alberto Tarantini missed a tackle on Van der Kerkhof, who centered the ball into the Argentinian goalmouth. Dirk Nanninga soared up and nodded in the goal that tied the score 1-1. The Dutch then surged again, and just at the end of the regulation 90 minutes, a shot by Willy van der Kerkhof, Reinier's twin brother, hit the crossbar atop the Argentinian goal.
A tie—30 minutes of overtime to play. Now it was that the full force of the River Plate made itself felt. The players were desperately leg-weary, and although the Dutch had run hard, it seemed the Argentinians had played themselves into the ground. As the first of the two 15-minute periods began, the fouling, which had been prevalent throughout the game, got worse. Three minutes into overtime Bertoni was hit by a Dutch player and rolled on the ground in genuine agony. No foul was called. The referee was losing control.
At this point some players were almost too tired to break into a run. But the singing and the roaring continued, and in almost the last second of the first overtime period, Kempes got in a shot that Jongbloed could only bat out. Two orange shirts converged on Kempes, but he got a foot on the ball—2-1. Argentina. Bedlam.
A quarter hour left and Holland was almost out on its feet. Then came the knockout punch. Kempes passed to Bertoni, who scored Argentina's third goal—little Bertoni, the winger who this spring came close to being dropped from the squad because he had let himself get too plump. But now that was forgotten, for with its first World Cup, all Argentina was singing.